Cultures

What Is Saint Patrick’s Day Really About?

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St. Patrick's Cathedral, dublin, Ireland

Image: Shutterstock/POM POM

What Is Saint Patrick’s Day Really About?

On March 17, people all around the world will come together to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Saint Patrick with excessive drinking and lots of harmless pinching. In Ireland, where the holiday originates, it will be celebrated as a solemn religious affair commemorating the death of Ireland’s patron saint. So what is Saint Patrick’s day, and why is it that St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated so differently in Ireland than everywhere else?

Saint Patrick was a fifth century deacon whose life is attested in something of an auto-biography he wrote called the Declaration. Born in what is now England to a upper class family, Patrick was part of the native population of Britons who had adopted the way of life that the Roman conquerors brought with them when they invaded in the first century AD. Saint Patrick is believed to have traveled to Ireland to convert the Irish to Roman Christianity. Finding the concept of the Trinity difficult to explain, Patrick is said to have held up the three leaf clover as an example of something that has three parts and yet is one entity. This is the basis of the association of the clover with Saint Patrick’s Day as well as the obligation to wear green.

The story of Patrick’s efforts at converting the people of Ireland grew over the following centuries, elevating Patrick to the status of patron saint of Ireland. As a result, the feast day of Saint Patrick became a significant event in Ireland. On this feast day, the Church released people from their lenten promises to refrain from food or drink, perhaps accounting for the tradition of drinking on Saint Patrick’s Day. In spite of this fact, the day remained a religiously motivated affair meant to honor the Saint and the Catholic Church. In fact from 1900 to 1970, it was illegal to serve alcohol on Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland.

As the Irish emigrated in large numbers to America, they brought the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day with them. It was in America that the day evolved from religious festival to the hard-drinking, secular holiday it is today. As the holiday grew in America, it was actually exported from the US back to Ireland, where it is increasingly being celebrated in the American style with parades and general festivity. As has often been the case, the expansion of American culture across the world has appropriated Saint Patrick’s Day for its own purposes and spread it far and wide. Today Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in dozens of countries with tides of green, shamrocks, and flowing beer.

Wyatt is a writer and your friend. You can follow him on Twitter @WyattRedd.